Over the last few months, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has had a magnifying glass pointed on its leaders handling of sexual abuse complaints, including some that are decades old.
But many similar stories have yet to see the spotlight.
One of those, told here publicly for the first time, involves two sisters who both say they were sexually abused as teenagers by their father, a former local church leader. The sisters’ account is based on interviews and court documents reviewed by KUER.
Michele Stone and her younger sister Melinda Aaron say George William “Bill” Aaron abused them when they were growing up in Provo in the 1980s and early 1990s.
“It started with, ‘I need you to rub my lower back.’ With nothing but a hand towel covering his body and lowering that quite low,” Stone said.
She said her father would then offer to give her a massage. It escalated from there. As she got older, Michele’s father would slip into her bed and molest her.
Melinda Aaron said she noticed a change in how her father treated her once she hit puberty. He would make comments about how she and Michele looked.
“He would compare my body to hers and almost try to make me feel better that she would wish she had a body like mine,” she said.
Melinda Aaron said she was molested as well. A civil jury later reached a verdict that Bill Aaron had behaved with "reckless disregard" toward his younger daughter.
Bill Aaron, who is now in his 70s, previously served as a Mormon bishop for a college congregation. When reached for comment at his home he said his daughters claims are “fictitious.”
In a written response to a request for comment, LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins said, as part of a longer statement, "Now that the Church has been made aware of this situation, local leaders will be encouraged to take steps to address this according to Church policy."
The sisters, who are now in their 40s, decided to share their story because they’ve realized they’re not alone. Others have experienced abuse and felt silenced by their Mormon community.
For a long time, the sisters didn’t talk about the abuse — not even with each other. The topic didn’t come up until Stone was out of the house and married with a child of her own. Then, one night in 1992, that started to change.
Melinda Aaron was babysitting for Stone’s son at their parents’ home. When Stone returned to pick up her two-year-old, she walked into her sister’s bedroom and saw her journal open.
“Words leapt off the page. To the effect of, ‘I hate him. I never want to be around him,’” Stone said.
She didn’t have to guess who her sister was talking about.
Days later they went for a drive up Provo Canyon. Stone knew if she came right out with it that her younger, and more reserved, sister might close off. So, she started slow, sharing simple details.
“If I used to lock my [bedroom] door I would get in trouble,” Stone said. “I would get grounded if I locked the door.”
She talked about the ways their father behaved inappropriately. Her sister nodded her head. As they talked, Aaron opened up.
“What it did is it gave me a safe person,” Melinda Aaron said. “It gave me someone I could talk to about it and who understood completely.”
Stone was grateful when her sister entrusted her with her story. But she also felt racked with guilt.
“My own silence had had an effect on my sister,” she said. “And it was something that I had never thought of until that day.”
Because there are eight years between them, Stone never thought her little sister was vulnerable to the same things she experienced. But once she knew, she acted. The sisters consulted their mother who encouraged them to tell their Mormon bishop, the head of the local congregation. And that’s what they did.
The sisters hoped they could speak with their bishop alone. The bishop insisted on having Bill Aaron in the room. He denied everything they said. When they would share a new detail of the abuse he would interrupt, saying “That’s not how I remember it happening.”
“I remember you and I turning and looking at each other with our eyes wide open and shaking our heads and then looking at the bishop and waiting.” Stone said.
They were waiting for the bishop to push back on their father — to challenge him and dig a little deeper.
“I kind of felt stupid, sitting there,” Melinda Aaron said.
“It felt like we were being questioned,” Stone said. “It didn’t feel like he was being questioned.”
As far as the sisters know the bishop didn’t probe deeper. Stone says nothing came of it. No therapists or law enforcement were involved. And their father, a former bishop himself, received no church discipline.
In the statement emailed to KUER, LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins wrote “Abuse cannot be tolerated in any form. In recent years, resources and instructions for priesthood leaders have been augmented significantly, including the introduction of the Church's abuse helpline in the mid-90s.
“Leaders are now provided with broader guidance on how to handle cases of abuse, including how to report, caring for victims, and when disciplinary action from the Church may be appropriate. Church leaders are instructed that when there is evidence of child abuse, disciplinary action from the Church is required.”
He stopped touching them, but the abuse didn’t totally end. The sisters credit that change to them being on high alert.
Years later, Stone was attending an abuse support group on the Brigham Young University campus.
“I was sitting in a room, full of women, who had been sexually abused by a family member — most of them,” she said.
Stone said most of group’s stories sounded identical to hers: “My father abused me. I told the bishop. Nothing happened.”
“I just knew that wasn’t going to be my story,” she said. “I wasn’t going to allow that to be my story.”
Things were changing for the Aaron family. Their parents divorced and their father was dating a woman whom he wanted to marry.
One day, as he was talking about his girlfriend’s daughter, Michele became worried. Her father was talking about the 12-year-old girl’s body, complimenting it.
“Oh no. This is the same age I was. The same age my sister was. All the red flags were going up,” Stone said.
Determined not to let this go, she reached out to his father’s girlfriend. But Stone said she showed no concern.
Michele got in touch with a lawyer friend. They talked about prosecuting her father. But there was a hang up. The statute of limitations had run out. But, Melinda Aaron could still sue. But there was another issue: she was serving a Mormon mission in Germany at the time.
“It was summer of ‘98, and I got a phone call in the middle of the night,” Melinda Aaron said.
It was her older sister. Stone told her what was happening and they both agreed they needed to do something. At first they reached out to their father to settle out of court. They asked him to seek clinical help. He rejected that proposal. They sued him.
“We would tell each other, it stops with us. It’s stopping here,” Melinda Aaron said. “We’re not going to let this bleed into another generation.”
In 2001, their case made it to court in Provo.
“It was a jury trial, it lasted three days. And we were successful,” Melinda Aaron said.
The jury found Bill Aaron had breached his fiduciary duty. And that he had inflicted emotional distress. In its verdict, the jury wrote that Bill Aaron behaved recklessly and offensively by massaging Melinda’s breasts and buttocks and forcing her to sleep in the same bed as him. But the jury stopped short of calling it sexual molestation.
Their father paid $25,000 in punitive damages. But, his standing in the LDS Church didn’t change.
Looking back, the sisters say that a lot of pain and heartache could have been avoided if only their bishop had intervened — if there had been a better plan in place.
Melinda Aaron sees one glaring issue in particular: how the LDS Church handles reports of abuse.
“You ultimately are always reporting to men,” she said. “As a woman, when you have situations that happen like ours, it doesn’t instill confidence that you’re being protected and looked out for.”
Ultimately, Melinda Aaron said her father was the one who was protected — not them. And while he paid in a court of law, they paid a much heavier price.
Full statement from LDS Church spokesperson Eric Hawkins:
"Abuse cannot be tolerated in any form. In recent years, resources and instructions for priesthood leaders have been augmented significantly, including the introduction of the Church's abuse helpline in the mid-90s.
"Leaders are now provided with broader guidance on how to handle cases of abuse, including how to report, caring for victims, and when disciplinary action from the Church may be appropriate. Church leaders are instructed that when there is evidence of child abuse, disciplinary action from the Church is required.
"Now that the Church has been made aware of this situation, local leaders will be encouraged to take steps to address this according to Church policy."